Random Recs, Part the First (of Many)

Things are slightly busier at work, especially as I intensify the hunt for a job post-August, which means I’ve been doing more absorbing and less outputting when it comes to entertainment. To fix this, I’m going to do a very brief rundown of what I’ve been taking in lately, with some quick thoughts on each. I can and will continue with longer pieces here, but expect these capsule reviews to pop up fairly frequently.

TV:

  • As my icon would suggest, I’m more than thrilled by the return of Mad Men this past Sunday. I got into the show last summer at the urging of my roommate, and the show is as good as ever. Now that we know the time frame of the new season, and have a general outline of where our principal characters stand personally and professionally, there aren’t too many cliffhangers to resolve (other than Joan and her Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Husband). The beauty of this show, though, is that it’s kind of the anti-Lost: light on the dramatic plot-twists, but heavy on rich, believable characterization. Now that Don’s a free agent, he seems to be simultaneously losing his Don-Draper cool and embracing his assumed identity (rather than hold onto Dick Whitman) as his new company steps into the limelight. Somehow, I predict some devastating emotional fallout a few episodes down the line.
  • Veronica Mars is a show I’ve been meaning to watch for years, especially since some of the writers are the brilliant minds behind my late, lamented Party Down. I’d actually already caught the third season, which, while engaging, is a deep drop in quality from the stellar first season. Clever, funny, with complex story arcs and stellar acting–plus, it indulges my unabashed love for high school romances. I think it’s reductive to call the show Buffy the Girl P.I., but it shares a similar spunk and originality of voice. Highly recommended and currently online at Netflix.

Cinema:

  • Freaks can finally be crossed off my list. Even though I already knew the main plot points and had seen clips of the film, this was definitely worth watching from start to finish. For various reasons, I am fascinated with the idea of normalcy and abnormality, and the idea of “passing” for normal (everyone should read Passing by Nella Larsen for a wonderful meditation on this). The acting is kind of terrible, in that way that early talkies are all big eyes/big mouth/looming like Bela Lugosi. But is there anything creepier, and more bad-ass than the Human Torso inching his way through the mud with a knife in his mouth? It’s a troubling film from an exploitation perspective, of course–but with the exception of the “pinheads,” I find Tod Browning’s use of genetically altered and disabled people much less offensive than, say, Harmony Korine. And does anyone else think that “Half-Boy” Johnny Eck is rather dashing?
  • Fascinating and funny as it is grating and infuriating, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a stellar look at the life of a brilliant walking punchline and fellow Strong, Beautiful, Barnard Woman. I’m too young to have seen Ms. Rivers in her glory days–but having mostly only seen her obnoxious red-carpet gigs, I was blown away by just how hilariously dirty her stand-up is (where was this woman during The Aristocrats?!). She’s a compelling, complex interview subject, and her perspective on work, failure, and frequent marriage of the two is thought-provoking for anyone who’s ever had big dreams, or had them dashed.

Literature:

  • I’ve been rereading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in preparation for this, and it’s as compelling as the first go round, if not more so. It’s a wonderful book, one that you really won’t appreciate unless you read it all the way through, and I can’t wait to hear what the unwashed, over-educated masses at the A.V. Club thought of it.
  • As always, I love me a good McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. A few highlights from issues 32 and 34 (Issue 33 is the much publicized Panorama newspaper): “Memory Wall,” and “Afterlife” by Anthony Doerr, “Black Square” by Chris Adrian, and “The Wreck of the Beverly B” by T. C. Boyle. The best short stories are precise, yet rich, creating universes within the space of a dozen pages. I got heavily into short fiction while taking writing workshops in college, and I still think of them as the best learning tools, the best way to discover new authors, and the best kind of reading for long subway rides.
  • Some other shorts worth checking out: “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, “Sea Oak” by George Saunders, “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham.